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Saturday, November 29, 2008

MLS season rewind: a look back

Winners and losers:
On the W side...
1. Columbus, Schelotto and company ran through the season burying teams like DC and LAG on their way to a Supporters shield and an MLS Cup. Sigi Schmid is the best coach in MLS and an X factor for any team in the league. Seattle, there could be a rosy future in hand. Outlook: Keep the Argentinean, add another one (Palermo?) and keep a strong young squad to restore MLS's name in the next Concachampions.
2. New York's up-and-down season ended with a bittersweet end. Their unlikely quest for glory came after losing Altidore to Villareal and Reyna to retirement plus a long list of injuries. Van Den Bergh held this team together for Juan Carlos Osorio and Cepero (plus some luck) delivered NYRB's place in the final.
3. Real Salt Lake bought up some new faces (Morales, Mathis, Espindola, Olave) that took them all the way to the play-offs, not to mention a wonderful new stadium in Rio Tinto that I feel should be used against most Concacaf foes for the Nats (except Mexico, of course).
4. KC rejoiced in their make-shift yet cozy Community America Ballpark, effectively moving out of Arrowhead and clearing the way for a real stadium. Lopez and an appearance in the play-offs worked out well for them. Arnaud's play impressed enough to play in the national team.
5. San Jose won its place back in MLS and a smaller but effective stadium (like KC's) paved the way for a season in which they were contenders given the ineptitude of the western conference.
6. Chicago held its own, added Brian McBride to an already swelling attacking front with Blanco and Rolfe and reassured their defensive play.
7. Toronto FC started out well but eventually collapsed due to their long list of international players. Still, the best attendance in the league and a great manager made them a good team to watch this season.
The L side...
1. Galaxy. Gullit never really liked it in LA and Lalas' awful picks did the team in. Team Beckham-Donovan played great offense but stumbled in their defense worse than the Detroit Lions. Sean Franklin was a bright spot, as were Donovan's goals and an eventual move out of the league.
2. Houston is on this side because they allowed themselves to be beaten out by the Red Bulls. Their team has great explosiveness but maybe it's time for something new.
3. New England was awful this year thanks in part to losing Twellman and Ralston to injuries plus a horrible showing at the Concachampions. Clearly, they did not care about the regional tourney.
4. DCU had an unfortunate fall from grace this year. The eternal MLS contenders fell appart due to injuries and an innefective Marcelo Gallardo, a streaky Emilio, and bad goalkeeping. Concachampions was another failure.
5. Chivas is a difficult side to categorize because they also succumbed to injuries throghout the year. Kljestan and company found a way to win games and that led them to the play-offs once again. They reside in the losers columns simply due to their horrible failure in the Concachampions... beaten out by (ehem) a Panama side?
6. Colorado was flat all year long. Gomez should not have left DCU and both teams paid for this. Conor Kasey's return was a bright spot.
7. Dallas was awful to watch this year. Davino's entrance was inefective at best and then again it really doesn't matter because no one came to watch the games. If you look at the stats column on the right you'll see that they were down by 2500 seats from last year.

Looking forward: Columbus' win should open a few eyes (and wallets) since they won with a blue-collar team in accordance to their place of birth. New York should learn from this experience and perhaps opt for a playmaker of Schelotto's quality to bolster their attack. Same goes for the rest of the league. A second DP player might work wonders for the MLS. Columbus did it without one but Schelotto sure deserves a raise.
Less players, more money. More senior players in the squads, no reserve games and higher wages may work as a start in today's economy. MLS has its ways and sometimes it pays out.
Bring back Becks next season. The league needs him one more time in Bruce Arena's tuteladge and perhaps the team can finally reach the top. Donovan deserves his break in Europe so let's not try to keep him here. Another marquee forward might do the trick this time around since we also know Arena will be reconstructing the defense.
Lastly, there's Seattle. Fans and all. Ljundberg and Jaqua are also nice in this squad. In the end, expansion sides are a toss-up in this league where every team has a shot at being number one. It is the way of things in America... always different from the rest of the planet.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Rise of CONCACAF

Originally I was going to call this entry "What happened to Mexico?" but I would be selling short the upswing in play by Central America and the Caribbean. Indeed, the so-called group of death that included Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica and Canada proved to be just that. Up until the last minute of yesterday's matches there was a chance that either Jamaica, Honduras or even mighty Mexico might be left out of the final round of World Cup Qualifying. I put an emphasis on "final round" because it highlights the fact that that team would not even make the top 6 of the Hexagonal. The group ended with Honduras on top with 12 points, followed by Mexico with 10 and Jamaica with 10. Mexico went through with its higher goal differential but just the thought that the top team in Concacaf could have been left out was enough for the media to jump on the story and question the Sven Goran Eriksson, the technical staff, the players, and even Mexican soccer in general. My take? Mexico is not to blame. They have more than capable players in elite leagues around Europe even though some of its younger players aren't seeing time on the pitch (Vela, Dos Santos). There is a reason why this group was called the group of death. It's difficult enough to win in Honduras of late, period. Jamaica rarely gives points away at "the Office" (national stadium) and they have a good team as well. This group came down to who took the most points and goals from Canada and how much the top three scored on each other. Jamaica and Mexico came away from Canada with 1 point each while Honduras managed all 3. Ultimately, Mexico's 3-0 rout of Jamaica on Aztec soil was their ticket to the Hexagonal. So put Mexico against Guatemala or El Salvador and their place in the finals would have been assured as it was for Costa Rica and the US.
I think that we need to be more creative in the way we speak about our national teams and how they are the cream of the crop compared to so-called "minnows" of the Concacaf conference. Clearly, Honduras, Jamaica, T&T and Canada are all worthy foes. It will not be an easy run in the Hexagonal for any team and at this point all teams are expendable. Costa Rica's position is a toss-up since they have not played against more demanding foes so we can't be sure what their position will be in the next round. Expect a few surprises and maybe a major upset. Bring on the Hexagonal.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Neven Subotic and the US National Team

There has been much speculation regarding one Neven Subotic--an outstanding defender of Serbian roots, American citizenship and German residency--and which country he might represent in the near future as Africa 2010 slowly creeps up on us. I have alluded to this particular situation on previous entries and I still believe he would be a great asset to the United States. Just recently it was mistakenly reported that Subotic had opted to play for Serbia instead of the US or Bosnia (also eligible). This, however, was quickly retracted when Sunil Gulati, the US Soccer Federation Prez himself, issued a communique saying that USSF had spoken with Subotic's representatives and claimed such claims to be "untrue." Earlier attempts by Germany to claim him were thwarted by FIFA due to a technicality involving his status with US youth squads.
So why all the fuss? Some facts: Subotic was born in Yugoslavia, spent his childhood in Germany and his teenage years in the USA since 1999 (Utah, Florida). He attended (and represented) the University of South Florida, played for the US U-17 and was eligible although not selected for U-20. He has spent the past couple of seasons in the German Bundesliga, playing for FSV Mainz (4 goals in 34 games) and most recently for powerhouse Borussia Dortmund (5 goals in 13 games). Clearly, the US backline can use a man of his stature and nose for goal. But here's my take on this debate and I'd like to pick Subotic's brain for just a second. . .
Serbia, former Yugoslavia is clearly no Germany in world footballing terms, but then again the US isn't Yugoslavia in footballing terms either. Yugoslavia reached the semifinals in the 1930 amd 1962 World Cups and runers-up in the 1960 and 1968 UEFA Euros. Let's not forget that Croatia was also once part of the Communist Yugoslavia and their 3rd place finish in France 98 is noteworthy. Many attributed most of the former Yugoslavia deep player pool to playters such as Davor Suker (Croatia) and Savo Milosevic (born in Bosnia, played for Yugoslavia/Serbia). Confusing, heh? And it should be, because Subotic also has the posibility to represent Bosnia, although his Serb parents strongly suggest Serbia as his team.
All in all, I think it comes to this: right now both the US and Serbia have chances of advancing to World Cup 2010. The US may have it easier against foes from CONCACAF whilst Serbia is paired up with none other than mighty France and on-again off-again Romania plus the feisty Austrians. I venture to suggest that Subotic will pick a team that has already qualified or is on the verge of qualifying for FIFA's biggest date, if he follows his football greed... if he follows his heart is another matter altogether. Clearly, the man will be a starter no matter whom he plays for. As for us USA fans let's cross our fingers and hope that France and Romania get the better of Serbia (Serbia has yet to snatch points from either one). We lost Rossi to Italy even though the boy was born in Jersey and now he's scoring regularly for Villareal and will feature alongside Luca Toni in the full national squad. Hopefully this will not be the case with Subotic.
Here he is in action:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Do the Crew!!!

At points in this MLS season I had badmouthed the Columbus Crew fans, labeling their franchise as one that could be moved elsewhere especially given that they did away with a portion of the stadium seats to make room for a stage. I always had faith in their team, however. Blue collar, hard working, compact, no huge stars. It's a classic underdog story. The once-Boca player Guillermo-Barros Schelloto pulls the strings in a most-Argentinean manner rekindling the days of Ortega, Veron and Co. Robbie Rogers is the American starlet that featured in the Olympics (without much impact). Hesmer is the goalie with mistique, Moreno the default #10, accompanied by US international and surfer Frankie Hejduk, plus Eddie Gaven, Nigerian Olympic medalist Emanuel Ekpo, and a host of other characters make up the new MLS bandwagon team. MLSRumors founders and current proprietors are also big Crew fans. It was a steady rise to the top for Sigi Schmid's team, both on the pitch and in the stands. They steadily made their way to the top brushing aside Chicago, DCU and the Revs. Their top form earned them a Supporter's Shield title (League championship, so to speak, based on regular season standings, a place in next year's Concachampions and a berth at next week's MLS Cup. So let's toast to the most hardworking team in the league! Being smart in terms of youth-experience balance, staying away from a DP, and ultimately winning the day through the impecable job done by Schmid has trully brought this team to the main stage at last. Here's to one of the original MLS 10 that actually kept their [at times regarded as silly] name. Bring it on, RSL/NY. A new champ will be crowned and maybe, for once, it will be the right team.
A few moments with the Crew (Guillermo always in the mix):

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jozy Altidore scores for Villareal

Typical Jozy. Composed, oportunistic, confident. A low shot to the left of the 'keeper and Jozy's European career just got a major boost. Hopefully it's the first of many. Hopefully he can be loaned to a smaller club so he can get more playing time but it's great to see him score for the yellow submarine!

MLS Attendance stats final week 2008

Hello, everyone. Final week was last week. Sorry it took me a little bit but it's been a busy month for me. Things should be easier from now on and other random statistics will be computed to show different trends. This year was about equal to last year (check out the difference plot, particularly the total). It was lower by about 97 seats or about 0.52%. Meaningless in statistical terms. Looking at the distribution for total attendance in pie chart format we see that DC and TFC share the majority of percentage (both with 17%), with Chicago (15%) and New England (15%) also showing respectable numbers. It's unfortunate that Columbus is lower (13%) given their sensational season.
Out west we see an obvious winner in the Galaxy (22%) due to the Beckham crowds. A modest Houston comes in second (15%) while RSL and a surprising Chivas (14%) are next in the pecking order. FCD is dissapointing again at 11%, lower than San Jose--their attendance numbers are inflated by games at the McAfee Colisseum. Elswhere, in relative attendance terms it seems that stadiums, on any given week, were about 70-80% full in the east. That's not a bad number compared to previous years. The west would be slightly lower at 60-70% on weekly basis, their numbers enhanced by LAG.